"Not that I'm complaining, Finch, but sometimes your machine could use some refinement." Reese spoke into the darkness to break the labored rhythm of his breathing.
There was no reply. As there hadn't been for... He'd lost count. Damn. He knew better than to lose count. He marshaled his thoughts, mentally repeating the calculations he'd made when he'd regained consciousness: tight, cramped, sealed space with twenty, maybe thirty cubic feet of air.
No wonder he'd stopped counting.
"This isn't good," Reese murmured wryly. He flexed his fingers behind his back, turning his wrists within the heavy handcuffs. If he could dislocate his thumbs... Difficult with his weight pressing down on his hands. And the handcuffs were tight, too tight.
"They had shackles, Finch." Reese coughed a dry half-laugh. "Actual shackles. I bet your machine didn't see that coming."
A wave of dizziness smeared over his forehead, pushing into his mouth and down into his lungs. He forced another cough, blinking rapidly, and steadied his breath.
Logic. Facts. Finch wasn't answering. Finch couldn't hear him. Last contact had been on the ferry: standing by the railing in knife-cold wind, watching the will-never-be-the-same silhouette of lower Manhattan crawl closer.
He'd been thinking about Donald Gerber's living room. Gerber, an ex-con and the latest number from Finch's machine, had fallen into a world way over his head when he'd decided his survival skills could be profitable. The city's underground fight circuit was run by Hennessy, a man with a sketchy background, and as Finch had observed with quiet irony, "I don't trust men with sketchy backgrounds."
In Donald Gerber's living room, all signs had pointed to a hasty escape. No time wasted closing drawers and cabinets -- just grab all the essentials and go.
There'd been a framed photo left on the rickety stereo cabinet: a snapshot of a much younger Gerber with a pretty girl, a sister or girlfriend. The picture was in bad condition -- faded, torn, creased -- but was framed. A pro who knew how to stage a place, make it look like the inhabitants had fled, wouldn't have considered the photo an essential, but it was the kind of emotional keepsake a man trying to rebuild his life would never leave behind.
"Something's not right," Reese had said as the ferry docked, and after a pause Finch had asked, "What do you need?"
And Reese hadn't had a chance to answer, because there was Hennessy, giant goon of a smug psychopath, and he'd brought friends. In the shuffle of ferry passengers they'd managed to divert Reese into an isolated dead end in the terminal. Dead ends could be useful -- two of Hennessy's friends had learned that the hard way -- but outnumbered was outnumbered, and Hennessy's best weapon was his right-hand man, whose background and training Reese suspected paralleled his own in significant ways. Which was unsettling, and something else Finch's machine hadn't foreseen.
What do you need?
At the moment? I need an oxygen mask and a pair of bolt cutters. And a cup of coffee would be nice. Caffeine to sharpen the mind.
"I'm not feeling so sharp, you see," Reese would've explained to Finch, if Finch were listening. He imagined Finch responding -- An oxygen mask and bolt cutters are on the way. You're on your own for the coffee -- and managing to convey slightly irritated amusement in his all-business voice.
"I could use your voice right now, Finch." Reese knew he'd said it aloud from the rasp sandpapering his throat. No good. He had to save his breath. No more talking to the man who wasn't listening.
But he really could use Finch's voice right now, he thought.
How annoying it'd seemed at first, especially with the earbuds: Finch's metronomic nasal intonation embedded in his ear. In his head. Under his skin. When it had changed from annoying to familiar, Reese couldn't recall. Now, not so much familiar as necessary. Like his daily cup of coffee, like opening his eyes to another dawn: Finch's voice as a reminder that he was alive and had a purpose.
Reese smirked. Finch was his proof of life. Finch, he surmised, would be displeased to know this.
Way things were going, soon there'd be no life to prove. Finch's voice? Screw that. What he needed was Finch's cavalry coming to the rescue. Except. Oh, yeah. He was Finch's cavalry.
Well, fuck, he thought, closing his eyes against the oppressive darkness.
"You don't want to hear this, but truthfully, I need you." No response. "Harold," he added, mocking, desperate. The silence pounded his ears, bashed at his skull. It was confusing: why should letting go of a tenuous connection cause so much pain? He'd never expected dying to hurt more than being alive had. When had death become so complicated?
"Mr. Reese. John. Stop that."
Logic insisted that the imaginary Finch-in-his-ear was trying to command him out of dying, but reality -- illogical and loud and icy -- slapped him. Literally. His lungs opened before his eyes did. He swallowed cold, stinging air and squinted up at a hazy night sky half-obscured by Finch leaning over him. Lights from unknown sources glinted off Finch's glasses, lending his piercing stare a vaguely sinister otherworldliness.
"Finch, did you just slap me?" His voice was a dust-on-toast whisper.
"Can you stand, Mr. Reese?" Finch reached for him, fingers brushing against his throat and upper arm.
Reese gulped a few deep breaths before levering his weight onto his heels. He rocked his shoulders forward and pushed himself upright. His back and joints ached and screamed, and the blood rushing everywhere at once gave him vertigo. Finch gripped his elbow.
"Can you climb?"
Reese hoisted one leg over the side of his erstwhile coffin, leaning into Finch's grip and hoping Finch had enough strength in his left hand not to topple them both. He gingerly lifted his other leg out and stood swaying in freezing night air. They were in a trash dump -- an illegal one by the looks of it -- and the assorted smells told him they were close to a river. The Hudson, he guessed from the reeds and grasses growing among the garbage.
He glanced back at his tomb: something heavy, steel, industrial. He wasn't yet detached enough to take a closer look.
"Hold still. I'll get these," Finch was saying, and Reese recognized the note of urgency Finch had had in his voice, now that it was gone.
Metal scraped metal and the horrendous weight on his wrists fell away. He cautiously moved his arms, rolling his shoulders.
"Shackles," Finch said with disgust. "We have to get out of here. Can you walk?"
"I can walk," Reese said, or attempted to. His throat had closed with the rush of air.
Finch grabbed his hand, saying, "This place is an obstacle course. We need to be careful."
Reese went at Finch's speed, letting him lead, not doubting the sincerity of his warning. They stepped through and around various sharp and wicked hazards in a darkness broken only by turnpike lights not near enough, and Reese imagined Finch traveling this route earlier, alone. Hurrying as much as the unfamiliar terrain and his limp would allow.
Reese flexed his fingers, still throbbing from the recovered blood flow, and fanned them against Finch's. The connection was a lifeline: the link to his proof of life, his proof that there was still something worth living for. Finch curved his fingers into a threaded lock with his and guided him out of this graveyard.
They were still holding hands when the ground cleared, leveled, and became concrete. Reese slowed his steps, taking in the sight of the sleek, long black car waiting for them, one rear door open. Low, warm light spilled out from the back. Finch let go of his hand and Reese climbed inside.
"A limo, Finch?" Reese sank into the deep leather seat. Finch sat next to him and after a moment someone unseen closed the door behind him.
"I was in a hurry," Finch explained, looking him over. Checking him for injuries. Reese knew that look all too well, though not from Finch. The car started. They were moving, gliding away. "The driver is... reliable. And can't hear us." Finch passed him a bottle of water. "Drink this."
Reese drank. "Hennessy. They were waiting at the ferry."
"His man, his second-in-command--"
"O'Brian," Finch supplied. Reese looked at him, and Finch continued, "Oh, I found out everything about Mr. O'Brian. He's a ghost in his official files -- like yourself -- but I'm capable of seeing ghosts." He quirked the corner of his mouth into a smile. "That is, my machine is."
Reese matched his smile. "If you'd been five minutes later, you wouldn't be seeing this ghost anymore."
"Yes," Finch said with a frown, glancing away.
Reese patted Finch's hand on the seat between them. "You weren't five minutes later, that's all that matters."
Finch didn't reply. Reese watched his profile, felt the warmth and tension of his knuckles beneath his fingers. The limo glided through the Holland Tunnel. They were back in Manhattan.
Finch's mouth set, hard and grim. "This was not a good day for us, Mr. Reese."
Finch was not in his lair for the next few days, a concern despite the messages he left for Reese each day telling him not to come. Reese showed up anyway, saw that the cluttered space was Finch-free, and left to go about his own business, which was following up on the Hennessy problem without Finch's help.
Maybe it was too late for Donald Gerber, and maybe once upon a time Reese would've cut his losses and let it go. But back then, there'd been no Finch. Been no memory of Finch's eyes closing briefly in pain as he admitted that they'd been too late... that he'd been too late. Again.
Reese had no intention of letting it go. Now that he knew how Hennessy operated, knew the kind of men he employed, Reese felt events revolving back into his control. There was the additional benefit that Hennessy believed he was dead. Sometimes, dead men had so much more freedom. A fact Reese would be pleased to demonstrate to Hennessy.
"One green tea, with sugar." Reese set the cup on the desk near Finch's wrist. Finch glanced up at him and raised an eyebrow about two millimeters. Reese perched on a corner of the desk and sipped his coffee.
"You're displaying an unexpected and, under the circumstances, questionable joie de vivre today, Mr. Reese," Finch said, turning back to his computer.
"A little problem I had is very close to being solved." And you're back, Reese thought.
"I'm glad to hear it," Finch said. He sat back from the desk, picked up the cup and lifted the plastic lid to inspect his tea. He set it down without a sip. "I, too, have a piece of satisfactory news."
Reese waited, watching Finch's eyes for any tell at all.
"There was something interesting in Mr. O'Brian's file. He met Hennessy during his former occupation, in a highly secret operation with a certain extremist organization overseas. Hennessy recruited him there, and Mr. O'Brian double-crossed his extremist contacts. There was a call to the faithful and a price was put on O'Brian's head, should he step into that country ever again."
Finch paused, meeting Reese's gaze. "His plane landed there yesterday evening." He spoke with a harshness, a grim satisfaction without pleasure.
Reese's thoughts raced. The timing fit with the last time he'd seen O'Brian with Hennessy. He stared at Finch, adding up the days Finch had been gone.
Finch glanced away. "All of the relevant facts about Mr. O'Brian's offenses were in the machine I built for the government. The data can't be altered, but sometimes the machine needs additional input to expose the right patterns to national security agencies."
"What about Hennessy?"
Finch picked up his tea and took a sip. "Mr. Hennessy accompanied him, and he was wanted as much as, if not more than, Mr. O'Brian."
Reese blew out a breath: deflated adrenaline, disappointment, but mostly relief and a curiosity he knew would never be satisfied.
He finished his coffee and tossed the empty cup in the trashcan. Finch watched him, slowly sipping his tea. Reese glanced at a bulletin board on the far wall and said, "You slapped me. When you came to get me. Why?"
"I woke you," Finch corrected. "You were in a trance. You'd been beating your head against the lid of that thing."
Reese brushed a fingertip against his forehead. "The bruise, ah."
Finch turned slightly. "It was a good sign that you were fighting, but also a waste of oxygen."
I wasn't fighting, Reese thought soberly, but didn't say. I just didn't want to leave yet. Maybe that was a kind of fighting.
Reese's memories sank into the weighted silence of never expecting to hear Finch's voice again.
"Has the machine spit out a new number?" Reese said, shoving that memory out of the way.
"Not yet," said Finch. He took another sip from his cup and grimaced. "The tea's too bitter again."
"I'll work on it," said Reese, reaching to take the cup. His fingers brushed over Finch's and paused there. Finch, releasing the cup to him, let his fingertips rest against Reese's for the span of a breath.
Reese took the cup and threw it away. Finch tapped on the keyboard.
"I spoke too soon." Finch's tone was a peculiar mix of dread and anticipation. "We have another number."
Reese leaned closer to watch the screen with him.
As long as life goes on, the numbers will never stop coming.